October 26, 2010

Church Music Rant

The other day I got into a conversation with someone on one of the standard conflicts of the parish ministry: music for funerals and weddings.

The conflict goes like this: the engaged who are preparing for their wedding or the bereaved preparing for the funeral Mass of their family member decide that they want a certain song in the liturgy. The pastor, priest, or music director objects, saying that such-and-such a song is not appropriate for divine worship because it is secular, sappy, vulgar, etc. Then the counter objection is made: on the contrary, this song 'mentions God' or is 'very spiritual.'

The first objection is easily dismissed. Just because a song 'mentions God' doesn't make it appropriate for the liturgy. Black Sabbath's "After Forever" (written by bassist Geezer Butler, a Catholic) mentions both God and Christ, and contains senses of eschatological urgency and counter-cultural belief in God that one rarely hears with such sharpness even in church, but this doesn't mean I want Ozzy to sing it at my funeral. For the blog, however, it's a fine inclusion. My funeral music is planned anyway, in a way.

The second objection, that an inappropriate song is 'very spiritual,' is a little harder. Here we are up against a flattening abuse of the term 'spiritual' which goes largely unchecked by preachers and pastors of souls. To the world, something is spiritual when it refers to the non-material life of the person, or the relation of the person to God or the divine in a very general way. For us Christians, however, the term is more specific. The 'spiritual life' and 'spirituality' refer specifically to the activity of the Spirit, the formal principle of the Church Who prays in her and as her both corporately and in her individual members.

But here's my challenge to pastors of souls and music directors on this issue. Who gets to decide which songs are suitable for the liturgy? Is it OCP or GIA? Who gave them this tremendous authority over the theological and catechetical formation of the praying assembly? If they, who are neither God nor the magisterium, can decide that a song is appropriate for liturgy, why not the couple preparing their wedding or the folks trying to mourn the loss of a loved one?

You see, I am begging the question. There is any easy way out of this problem, which is to begin to give up on the option of replacing the actual proper chants of the Mass with songs in the first place. Unfortunately, the option of replacing them has become so normalized that many priests no longer even recall that it is, in fact, a substitution.

Therefore, if pastors are unwilling to even investigate or begin to let go of this option become norm, and are also unwilling to try to preach a corrective against the flattening of the generic uses of 'spiritual' and 'spirituality,' then it's not fair to deny ordinary folks the option of substituting the music they think they want.


Anonymous said...

Once upon a time when I was in college, my cousin was asked to help out the organist during the summer so that he could take some time off. That arrangement was short-lived as he did a fine job during the mass, but then decided to play an interlude of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven in-between masses because it sounded "cool" on the organ. Needless to say the pastor wasn't too happy when he found out about it.

Brother Charles said...

The pastor should get one of those signs like they had in the guitar store in Wayne's World: "No Stairway to Heaven."

Paul A. Zalonski said...

I read about drug use in the NY Times, but my reading doesn't make me competent to be a pharmacist. I am biologically capable of having children, but this fact doesn't mean that I have received the grace for the vocation to the married state. The competency for priestly pastoral leadership is not given to everyone; moreover, the Catholic Church believes that the priest acts in persona Christi CAPITIS in areas of teaching, governing and sanctifying therefore has been given the responsibility to lead us to Christ. I don't tell my doctor how diagnose my illness, why should a priest invite audience participation in the preparation of the Liturgy? Or, why should a grieving family tell the priest what hymns they want done at the beloved's Mass of Christian Burial? BUT we inject the sentimental into our lex orandi tradition.

When a priest cedes his authority to others less competent the fabric of the Church begins to fall apart. GIA and OCP provide a service; but we don't have to take up that service.

The only reasonable and prudent direction to take, is as you point, to dispatch of the 4 hymn Mass (which is a Protestant invention and not Catholic) and to adopt the chants proper to the Mass allowing for the occasional hymn to be sung. Whether it is done in Latin or English, no matter. Chant is distinctively Catholic and ought to be promoted.

The problem seems to me is one of reduction of faith and reason to sentimentality and preconception which leads to ideology.

Brother Charles said...

Indeed. A good corrective adjustment to the post.

Mark said...

Interesting post and well articulated discussion points. My 2 cents is that all of the above being true, the actual practice of liturgy that brings the people of God together to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass now DOES occur with a 4 hymn setting as the practical norm. Changes would lead to pastoral disruption when none is required since this option is valid. I agree and have experienced the pastor actively making choices about music selections and this adds to the worship because they are in thematic relation to the readings. Input into the choice of hymns at a wedding or funeral is a kindness and, with pastoral direction, allows a family to help celebrate or mourn. I guess what I am saying is that in more learned circles a discussion of chant vs. hymns is good (though te earliest form of music in liturgy were hymns, chant being more "modern") I think the people in the pews should always be a pastoral consideration in such discussions.

Brother Charles said...

True, Mark, thanks for another good adjustment. People are praying and offering sacrifice to God, and that's what matters most.

On the other hand, I worry about this doctrine of 'matching the readings' sometimes; I have sometimes felt like there comes to be a cult of the 'theme' of a particular Sunday celebration. I have found myself in the back of church before a procession, listening to the canned explanation of such a theme (to which music has also been matched) and have been bemused to see that I had arrived at--and intended to preach--a very different sense of the readings.

But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm right. It might mean that I'm being obscure and eccentric.

Brother Charles said...

P.s. I think this 'cult of the theme' also extends to some troubles in the sense of the function of the readings in the Mass. E.g., when was the last time anyone ever heard a homily on the collect or the preface?

GIRM 65 The homily "should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day..."

Mark said...

Well said, Brother Charles. Too often we find that the easy path for liturgy is being taken. Perhaps because too many demands are being made on the liturgist? Anyway, I agree whole-heartedly that more variety and more creative liturgical selections can enrich a Mass further than today. Now, about getting that into practice....*s*

ben in denver said...

We rarely have "theme" Sundays. Sometimes we will get a hymn at communion or the recessional, otherwise everything is from the Liber. In the EF, the readings are often not as thematic as they seem to be in the new lectionary. Our pastor has been preaching a series of homilies on the sacarments this year. Last Sunday was his 4th homily on the sacrament of penance, its was largely about the role of conscience, whereas the Gospel reading was the "render unto Caesar" passage from Matthew.

With Chirst the King this coming Sunday, I do expect more of a theme.

Billy Isenor O.F.M. said...

Although I do like both the songs you posted, you are right about the suitable nature of music for liturgy. Plus, music for worship means that it should be sung by all. Just my two cents.

Br. Billy

Anonymous said...

You certainly are obscure and eccentric, but that doesn't mean you're wrong either.

Br. James, OFM, Cap.

Padre Paulus said...

Wow, and I thought I already hated "Here I am, Lord" with a perfect hate. I've had to reevaluate my entire world view after listening to that! In all seriousness, this subject is a pet peeve of many priest friends, including myself.

Sarah said...

As for "themed" Sundays, I'm not a big fan, but my family being in music ministry for many years now, there is one goof that comes to mind. We played a wedding hymn accidentally on a feast day celebrated by the local Bishop...oops! It was right next to a hymn about Our Lady which was the one we had intended. So sometimes...themes are good!

Being a church musician for practically all my life, I completely agree with your objections re: liturgical music. I have found myself drawn back to the stalwart hymns of days gone by, like "O Sacrament Most Holy" or "Faith of Our Fathers" (which by the way can be played with just about ANY reading or gospel)...instead of songs/hymns that I feel celebrate "us/ourselves/me" like "Now at this Banquet" or "Here I am Lord". I sometimes feel the words in these latter songs are trite and meaningless...and so it makes sense that a generation brought up on church "hymns" like these want to 'expand' into "From this Moment" by Shania Twain or "Time in a Bottle" by Jim Croce at their weddings.

I say, stay strong in your convictions when it comes to GOOD liturgy and liturgical music, even though it may feel like you're fighting the world some days. I don't have any good answers re: easy ways out of the "who gets to approve liturgical music" problem, but I do know that the Holy Spirit leads and guides the attentive soul in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. As a previous commenter said, "The competency for priestly pastoral leadership is not given to everyone". So when someone's saying that "Bye bye miss american pie" was Mr. Smith's favourite song and should be played at his funeral you will have the grace of your vocation behind you when you say, "uh, no".

Barb, sfo said...

Oh my...I honestly thought "Here I Am Lord" couldn't get any worse. But you proved me wrong. I could only hang in there for 45 seconds of that.
I've done my penance for the day.